Category Archives: Logical Fallacies

Lies, fallacies, and other election year nonsense

Mud-slinging is dirty businessTo catalogue all the lies being tossed around during this ugly election campaign season would be a daunting task. No one is immune; lying and exaggerations are common to all–presidential and non-presidential.

However, I will attempt to classify the crazy claims of one side against another, by simply revealing types of fallacies frequently used.

Ad Hominem. Literally, “to the man.” Remember when you were a kid and argued with a sibling or best friend? You couldn’t defend yourself against your opponent’s sharp tongue, so you got fed up and said something like, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re stupid.” Ouch. That immediately takes attention off of the argument at hand and turns into a defense of one’s intellect. Politicians who want to deflect attention from their own record will quickly resort to ad hominem attacks of their opponents. Thus the argument becomes one of character, not substance.

Ad Baculum: This one means “to the stick.” If you cannot convince someone with the truth, then use the veiled threat, or perhaps just a plain, open threat. How about the one that Democrats have trotted out time and again: If the Republicans win this election, old people will have to eat dog food in order to pay for their prescriptions; children will starve because the school lunch program will end; the water will be poisoned; the air will be unbreathable. This kind of fallacy got center stage during Clinton’s campaign against Dole.

Appeal to pity:  This one not only covers the above smear Clinton’s side perpetrated, but it goes deep to touch the heartstrings of a soft-hearted American public. This is when both sides trot out the families whose lives have been touched by the wonderful candidate for office. It happens when candidates bring out some hard-luck cases whose lives will be even worse if an opponent wins. Those sad-faced pictures of starving children and bed-ridden seniors are sure to tug at your emotions. But what have they got to do with the case at hand?

Ad populum: If you can’t get them with pity, go after your audience’s need to follow the crowd. Cite popularity polls, then conclude that if so many people want a, b, and c, then everyone else does too. Not too many people want to go against the flow, so they will certainly join the crowd. Never mind that this has nothing to do with the big issues that need addressing. Ad populum also  appeals to a common bias or prejudice, such as racism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and such. “If you don’t want to be called a bigot or racist, then you will vote for ________.” One side in this year’s presidential race accused the other side of trotting out people of color just to seem like they weren’t racists. Never mind that this side wants to have people of color give some speeches too. If this side does it, it’s not racist. If the other side does…

Straw Man: Oversimplifies an opponent’s argument before refuting it. The fallacy is committed when a person ignores his opponent’s “actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position” (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html).

Bulverism: This fallacy is pretty simple. You shut down the debate by oversimplifying and judging the character of your opponent. This is a subset of ad hominem. This one says “It figures you would say that; you are a Christian” or “You Republicans are all bigots; I’m not going to listen to a word that comes out of your mouths” or “All Democrats are left-wing liberal nut-jobs.” You have dismissed the validity of an opponent by lumping him in with a broad category.

Big Lie Technique (also “Staying on Message”): “The contemporary fallacy of repeating a lie, slogan or deceptive half-truth over and over (particularly in the media) until people believe it without further proof or evidence. E.g., ‘What about the Jewish Question?’ Note that when this particular phony debate was going on there was no ‘Jewish Question,’ only a ‘Nazi Question,’ but hardly anybody in power recognized or wanted to talk about that.” Or most recently, one side accused the other of wanting to drain Medicare. That lie was repeated over and over until the other side launched a counter-offensive, accusing the first side of doing that very thing. But that lie was repeated often enough that it took on a life of its own, and many folks see it as the truth now.  (Quoted material from http://utminers.utep.edu/omwilliamson/ENGL1311/fallacies.htm)

Non sequitur:  This one means “does not follow.” Whatever conclusions a politician comes up with in his push for election, do not make sense in light of what he has said before. Take this crazy one for example:

Brilliant mind

Obviously there is much, much more wrong with this than a non-sequitur fallacy. What do you think?

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More Errors in Reasoning

The fallacies of Composition and Division are funny things. Just when you think you have them figured out, they sneak up on you again, and you find you’re committing one of them.

Composition is the fallacy of assuming that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole. James Nance, author of Introductory Logic (Canon Press), cites a great example for composition: “if chlorine is a poison, and it is, and sodium is a poison, and it is, then if we combine them (NaCl), the result should be twice as poisonous, right? Wrong. We are talking about table salt.” What is true about the parts is not true about the whole.

Division, on the other hand, is the opposite of composition. This fallacy assumes that what is true of the whole must then be true of the individual parts. For example, this glass of soda is red, therefore all the atoms that make up this soda must also be red.

It is frustrating to be a member of a group and have someone peg each individual in that group a certain way, when they are by definition diverse, and should always be. For example, usually around the time of a heated political campaign, someone from a women’s organization will speak up on behalf of all women. I happen to be a member of that people group, and I object to being represented collectively by someone with whom I have a large idealogical difference.

The argument about whether to de-fund Planned Parenthood has become the favorite object of women’s groups, who have begun to shrilly cry that anyone who votes to take away that organization’s funding is against women, and specifically against women’s health.

Please, stop saying you represent me. You don’t represent the entire group of people who are female. You actually represent a small subset of that group; you do not speak for me. Stop implying that you do. I have never used, needed, nor wanted Planned Parenthood. I drive by one most days, and I shudder to know that within those walls young women are duped into believing that for a little inconvenience and a sum of money, they can wash their pregnancy down the drain, troubles all gone. Planned Parenthood is not about women’s health; it is about abortions.

When one or two women step up to the microphone and say they represent all women, they assume that because we are women we all think and feel the same way they do. Not so, and I wish you would stop trying. You do not represent me, my wishes, my priorities, my morals.

I see a similar fallacy arising in the modern Christian church, and I’m trying to figure out whether it is composition or division. Maybe you can help me.

It should be true (and I can show you where in the Bible!) that all Christians believe the Word of God, the Bible, to be infallible, inerrant, and the source of absolute truth.

It should also be true that all Christians (and I can show you where in the Bible!) believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that his work on the cross paid the penalty for sin, for those who will believe and profess him to be their Lord and Savior.

It should be true that all Christians carry those beliefs. Now, however, you can find all sorts of people who call themselves Christians who will pick and choose which of those they want to believe. And they still call themselves Christians!

For some, for example, the Bible is not completely inerrant. In other words, some folks will tell you they believe the Bible is the Word of God, but that Genesis is only a fable. If you can choose for yourself what parts of the Bible are true, haven’t you made yourself the authority instead of God?

For another example, the Emergent Church movement has begun to work at eroding the very foundation of the Christian church–and still calls itself Christian. By questioning the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross, or by questioning whether there really is an eternal hell, or by completely eliminating the topic of sin from its messages, it preaches a brand new kind of religion under the guise of Christianity.

So while I read my Bible, the source of truth for the Christian church, I should be able to believe that what is true of the whole Christian church should be true of its individual members. Instead, we see that wolves in sheep’s clothing have entered the fold and have begun to redefine Christianity right under our noses, changing what has been true about the fundamentals of this faith for centuries.

Are we talking about a whole new fallacy now? Or do we just call this heresy?

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A, not non-A

 When two college kids in a coffee shop begin discussing philosophy, you know it’s going to be a long night. I remember doing this, but it wasn’t over coffee; our conversations always took place over pizza at 2 am. Everything is fair game to amateur philosophers, and one simple question could take them down long, winding, scary-looking roads. One thing you might want to see them do is set up ground rules for their discussion. However, today, the likelihood of  postmodernists setting up rules for discussion is pretty distant. Postmodernists are absolutely certain that there are no absolutes.

Our postmodern debaters might instead toss logic aside for the purpose of wide-ranging debate. They evade moral boundaries with “that’s your truth, not mine.” Comfortable with opposing presuppositions, the two decide that what’s true for one may not be true for the other, but that’s okay.

What they don’t realize, while coffee cools and conversation continues, is by setting aside basic truth, they have lost the means by which to build a real discussion. What follows is nonsense. Essentially, they’ve washed away the very foundations of logic in pursuit of erudite, meaningless philosophical dialogue.

Considered the father of logic, Aristotle recorded what he observed in the world. He is renowned for his laws of thought, one of which is called the Law of Non-Contradiction. This law seems so simple, yet its application threatens postmodern thought. Thus the reason that many teachers and scholars today depart from (or ignore) Logic: the Law of Non-Contradiction is an inconvenient truth that wreaks havoc on their pseudo-intellectual debate.

This law states that a thing cannot be both true and false at the same time. In other words, something cannot be both A and non-A. That seems like a no-brainer. However, most likely our postmodern coffee-house debaters have abandoned this basic law of thought. “What’s true for you may not be true for me” cannot exist as a basic truth in light of Aristotle’s law, because two conflicting or contradictory statements cannot both be true.

Take for example something a blogger recently posted. He made a seemingly innocuous statement about religions: “True religions encourage good behavior.” (I won’t copy the entire sentence, because what follows that statement is a fallacy I may choose to take apart another time.)

Let’s unravel the phrase “true religions.” That in itself is a contradiction. Every religion claims to be a true religion. (Honestly, why would you not claim to follow a true religion? Put it another way: why would you follow a religion you knew to be false?)

Most religions claim that their god is the one true god (or, in some cases, the many gods who reign and rule). If they don’t hold to a deity, they do follow certain paths to holiness or heavenly existence. So if religion A claims its god is the one true god, and religion B makes the same claim, each religion has just vowed the same, yet conflicting, statement.

By saying “mine is the one true god,” you have implied that all other gods are not-true. If that is so, you cannot say that religion B’s god is also true without abandoning logic. Thus only one religion’s truth claim can be true, according to the Law of Non-Contradiction.

Go ahead and try to believe that all truth claims—even contrasting ones—are valid. Believe that your coffee is both cold and not-cold. Just realize that you have kicked the foundation out from under your discussion, and it’s going nowhere.

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Cartoon nonsense: non sequitur begs a question

Pooh and Piglet
Pooh and Piglet

 As fallacies go, non sequiturs are pretty well-known. This fallacy, which literally means “does not follow,” leaps from the premise to the conclusion without any substantiation. Thus we draw a conclusion that does not follow from the above premises.

One popular logic textbook by James Nance and Douglas Wilson offers the following example: “God is love. Love is blind. Ray Charles is blind. Therefore, Ray Charles is God.” Though perhaps the form of the syllogism looks valid, the conclusion cannot be drawn from these premises.

Here’s a real-life example that just came across my computer screen late last night, and it has me twitching.

This weekend on the popular social network FaceBook, members encourage one another to replace their profile picture with a picture of their favorite cartoon character. Here’s what members tell one another: “Change your profile picture to a cartoon character from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday (Dec 6) there should be no human faces on FaceBook, but an invasion of memories. This is a campaign to stop violence against children.”

Not only is this a non sequitur, it also evinces a fallacy called “Begging the Question,” or petitio principii. Putting a cartoon character in my FaceBook profile picture, joining the masses who currently follow suit, will stop violence against children? Another faulty logical maneuver is implication: by NOT changing my profile picture to a cartoon character, I have (gasp!) said I condone violence against children.

Grumpy Bear, such a downer

Grumpy Bear, such a downer

While you make faces and accuse me, like Grumpy Bear, of popping that wonderful little red balloon Love Bear holds in his sweet, fuzzy paw, I will challenge you to think carefully how lemmings on a social website will end violence against children by changing their profile picture. It makes me wonder whether I could begin a new campaign to bring the moon closer to earth if we change our profile picture to our favorite snack food. It does not follow!

Remember those chain mail letters you got when you were younger (back before email took over and we were inundated with similar missives promising $50,000 to everyone who added their name to the email and sent it on)? If we just sent out ten letters to friends, then we’d receive some sort of promised benefit. If we broke the chain, bad luck would soon follow.

Even as a child, I knew that was a bunch of hot air and waste of good money on stamps. It was superstitious nonsense. Yet here we are, on the internet, still purveying the same kind of silliness. There’s nothing new under the sun.

It simply does not follow. No social change will come about from posting a picture of my favorite character, not even if 350,000 of my closest friends do the same. “But,” someone argued when a friend bravely pointed out the façade, “we need to consider those less fortunate than ourselves and do something! Raising awareness of an important issue prompts some people to take action. Some may adopt a better parenting style. Others may support an organization that supports kids in distress.”

Really? From changing your profile picture, this will come about? My friend defined the real meat of this fallacy:

What will REALLY help __________? (Insert whatever cause you want to ‘raise awareness’ of.) Is it a color of ribbon that I wear? or changing a picture on a public forum? Those things smack of blowing my own horn for my self-righteousness — to my glory, not to God’s. I need to speak the Law (to convict people of sin) and the Gospel (to tell of Christ’s atoning work on the cross to pay for and forgive sin). That is the ONLY thing that will not only change people’s bad behavior, but give eternal hope and peace with God to both the abused and the abuser.

I agree that there are actions to be taken, love to show, money to be raised, but in the end (and I mean THE END), the One who will help/love/provide/change this world won’t be me.

Truly, what brings about social change? Not some action of my own devising, but the saving act of Jesus Christ. Not some new program by government or in my community or in my church, but the Gospel. It is my great joy in the knowledge of my salvation—unearned through no act of mine but solely through the grace of God—that compels me to step outside and help others, carrying out the Great Commission.

One more thought comes to mind, about acts done publicly “to make our world a better place,” like stopping violence against children. Such boasting is a form of self-righteousness. Matthew 6:1-4 reads, 

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

Lest you argue that I’ve gone off the deep end in searching for such profound meaning in a cartoon character, I will remind you that following a trend such as this is just that: a trend, not a promise to end world hunger or AIDS or violence against children. It has no meaning; it is mere symbol.

 Change your FaceBook profile picture—go ahead! Just don’t try to tell yourself your act is doing anything but making people smile when they associate a cartoon character with your name. It just does not follow that this will cause great social change in this world—don’t fool yourself.

Here’s an interesting commentary on the above passage from Matthew 6: http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Sermon/sermon_22.htm

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Distraction: keep ’em off-topic

The story goes like this: fugitive peasants being chased by authorities would drag a bunch of fish across their trail as they escaped, in an effort to divert the attention of the tracking dogs. Another story tells of hunters tying fish to a string and dragging them along a trail to train their dogs.

Either way, these stories tell the origin of the term “Red Herring.” Today, when someone accuses the other of using a Red Herring, he does not refer to someone who loves to drag fish around. He refers to a logical fallacy, the fallacy of distraction.

Red Herrings appear in many forms. They can be ad hominem fallacies as well, taking on a rich, lovely double-whammy and earning extra bonus points, if you’re counting fallacies in an argument. One could, in a debate, call his opponent a slimy dog, thus earning the simple ad hominem–distracting from the main point by attacking your opponent. Or, to add depth to one’s fallacy, one could not only slander, he could accuse his opponent of wrongdoing, causing him to stop in his tracks and defend himself, thus completely derailing the entire debate.

In the political world this happens the month before a big election. Called the “October Surprise,” a campaign will reveal some huge dirt on an opponent in October (since elections are in November). Then said opponent must spend time and resources defending himself instead of concentrating on bringing home the votes. The one dishing the dirt laughs all the way to the voting booth. He has taken attention off the vital points of the campaign, thus perhaps winning the election, or at least doing some major damage to his opponent’s reputation.

Sometimes listening to political commentators frustrates me. I want to hear the whole argument, but instead I find the opponents shouting each other down or diverting from the main point into little side issues that don’t matter. “How did you get yourself dragged down that trail?” I find myself shouting to the TV. And yet it happens again and again.

Debaters can (and should) control the argument better,  by saying, “Now, you’re trying to pull me away from the main point here. Let’s go back and answer the real topic at hand.” Who gets the victory when someone is dragged away from the main point? That’s right–your opponent.

In class, I call this a “bunny trail.” Students love to try them out. Discussion goes in one direction; student takes it down some irrelevant line of discussion. If the teacher does not maintain control of the discussion, guess who does? Now, sometimes a bunny trail can be a great place for a while. Good side discussions can become a learning experience themselves. I just want to have some measure of control of where we go down that little trail, and haul it up short if we go so far we can’t see the main road.

So Fallacies of Distraction can take several forms. If you were in a debate, could you recognize them, divert them, and return to the point at hand? It’s harder than you think.

For more information about fallacies and logic, check out my text book, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric 1, at amazon.com.

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“Soft tyranny”

Recently a commentator labelled someone’s ad baculum fallacy as “soft tyranny.” This intrigued me so much, I decided to look a little deeper. Ad baculum is another fallacy of distraction, like ad hominem. If you can pull your opponent off topic–get him to forget the subject you were debating–you win. Ad hominem attacks the opponent with a slur (“Oh yeah? Well, you’re stupid!”). Ad baculum slips in a veiled threat.

Ad baculum can be as sleazy as an outright threat: “Someone might get hurt if he insists on sneaking around in my back yard.” It can be backhanded, almost as an afterthought. “Oh, he won’t try anything. I’m sure he cares about his family.”

Adolf Hitler was the master of fallacy. In 1938, while contending to the world that Germany was no warlike nation, Hitler inserted a pretty great ad baculum fallacy into a speech: 

If ever international agitation or poisoning of opinion should attempt to rupture the peace of the Reich, then steel and iron would take the German people and German homesteads under their protection. The world would then see, as quick as lightning, to what extent this Reich, people, party, and these armed forces are fanatically inspired with one spirit, one will. (February 20, 1938)

Not really a threat…just a hint of one. Enough to make someone back off just a little.

In politics, ad baculum fallacies abound on all sides. During one campaign, I believe it was Clinton vs Dole, the Democrats insisted that if the Republicans won, old people would be thrown out into the streets (Medicare would be destroyed), children would starve (the public school lunch program would end), and the waters of this country would be poisoned (the EPA would lose its funding). Yes, folks, the monsters want your vote. Don’t give it to them!

And this week, I’m sure just to provide more fodder for my blog on ad baculum, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke out about the proposed mosque that some Muslims want to build in the shadow of Ground Zero in New York City. She said, “I join those who have called for looking into how is this opposition to the mosque being funded?  How is this being ginned up?” (See the Youtube video from 8/18/10). If it weren’t intentionally done, it at least has the effect of stifling dissent. (“Wow,” one might think, “if I speak out on this issue, someone will be nosing around in my business. I don’t want to attract attention to myself like that. I’d better be quiet.”) Needless to say, this is a violation of the First Amendment, but since it’s a veiled threat, you can’t really call it a direct threat, right? Clever!

Ad baculum, then, has consequences: to shut up one’s opponent because he fears the threat, and to move the discussion from the topic at hand onto a side note or distraction. Striking fear in the heart of your opponent definitely fits the bill of what one commentator calls “Soft Tyranny.” The threat of harm will stifle a good, hearty debate. It’s a fallacy, it’s used by folks on all sides of the political spectrum, and it’s incredibly powerful.

For more discussions on logical fallacies, see my text, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric 1, available on Amazon.

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Ad Hominem: tool of teens and politicians

I remember fighting with my sister, and when things started going badly, I resorted to the ever-useful “Oh yeah–well, you’re stupid!” There–that’ll show HER.

My own children began using that brilliant slur, and many others just like it, when they ventured into sibling arguments. A couple of them tried telling me they didn’t do well in class because the teacher was stupid and ridiculous. They tried that until we home schooled and I worked alongside the teachers in our little home school program. (A smart kid won’t try that too often when the mom is one of the teachers. I have smart kids.)

Anyway, the attack on one’s opponent, called ad hominem, occurs when one 1)runs out of a reasonable line of argumentation or 2)is losing the argument. It is a fallacy of distraction. See how easily it works? Political candidate “A” calls his opponent “B” a tool of Wall Street because he used to be a banker. Suddenly the argument becomes not a discussion of issues, but a defense of one’s personal character.  Success! “A” now has the upper hand, and “B” is on the run.

Watch Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-NY, defending himself against accusations of ethical violations. When a reporter asks him a question regarding these accusations, what does Rangel do? He tells the reporter his question was “dumb.” He confronts the reporter, repeating that his questions are “dumb,” and belittles the young reporter for wanting to make a name for himself in the news business. Has he answered the question? No, and the reporter doesn’t push through the ad hominem attack; he follows right down the path Rangel wants him to go: away from the discussion at hand. It almost makes you think of a wild animal trapped in a cage, lashing out viciously. Oops–was that an ad hominem attack?

Ad hominem is one of the simplest fallacies to spot, because it is so easy to commit. It is part of our human nature, to reach for a low point instead of appealing to a more upright, honest level of discussion. Why go for honesty when you can drag someone through the mud?

When you watch this fall’s election campaigns, see if you can spot ad hominem attacks. The streets will be filled with the mud of these filthy, childish tactics. How should a politician, or a news reporter or commentator, answer ad hominem attacks, instead of allowing himelf to be driven down the muddy route?

We’ll examine other fallacies in political debates this fall. For more information about ad hominem and other fallacies, see my text book, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric 1.

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